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The toughest deer to stalk: which of these six species is hardest?

From the tiny muntjac to the noble red stag, UK stalkers are spoilt for choice — but which species presents the sternest test, asks Chris Dalton

A conversation I have had many times over the years has centred around the different challenges faced by hunters as they try to master stalking the resident deer on our small island. Which are the toughest deer to stalk? UK stalkers are lucky to have relatively easy access to six species, with most well scattered across Britain.

If we believe what we are being told, deer numbers are rising and the population is higher now than it has ever been. So, by definition, it should be easier to hunt them. I consider myself lucky to stalk all of our native species on a regular basis and, as a stalking outfitter, this is often while guiding clients. I get to hear the opinions of many as to which deer they prefer to hunt and why. I have always taken the view that the harder the challenge, the greater the reward and, on that basis, the ‘best sport’ should come from the deer that is the most difficult to successfully outwit. (Which deer species offers the most delicious venison?)

When assessing any degree of difficulty, there are numerous factors at play. Traditionally the two biggest influencers were terrain and the deer’s habits, but a new player in this mix must be technology. We have a breathtaking array of kit available to us that hitherto would only have found its way into the hands of the military. These new gizmos are now essentials. The development of handheld thermal technology is having the biggest impact and, to some extent, removing part of the challenge of stalking. But which species can still test a stalker?

Stalking Chinese water deer

Chinese water deer aren’t hard to find but their liking for open fields can make the approach tricky

Six: Chinese water deer

Chinese water deer (Hydropotes inermis) are not difficult to either locate or stalk and their habit of laying up in the middle of open arable fields makes them very visible. So they start off my list of the toughest deer to stalk. Generally Chinese water deer seem happy to watch people — until, that is, they start to get closer than 250 yards. When couched, they lie in a scrape much like a brown hare’s form. They will sink down low, watching as you approach, content until you think you are closing to a shooting distance, at which point they will spring up and bounce off.

For many years, I have assisted the Chinese water deer cull on a private estate. Towards the end of March, when we only shoot the young does and bucks, it is incredibly frustrating to see the deer watching you from the middle of a large, flat, open field. They know to sit tight. The relatively short open season, which runs concurrently for both males and females from November to March, along with their limited distribution, means that it can be tougher to find stalking opportunities for Chinese water deer, although the beasts themselves present less of a challenge than other species.’

Fallow deer

Fallow live in herds, meaning there are many pairs of eyes watching for danger

Five : Fallow

Fallow (Dama dama) can be difficult, hanging around in big groups as they often do, along with a tendency to cover large distances in search of food, shelter or if frequently disturbed. So, whether it be in broadleaf woodland or out in the open stubbles, there are lots of pairs of eyes looking for the briefest sign of danger. Having spoken to many professional stalkers involved with managing fallow, they tell of the difficulties they face in controlling them, particularly the does. On smaller acreages, the deer are there one minute and gone the next. (Read more on the origins of fallow deer here.)

I have been on many winter doe culls and the hardest of these have been when the fallow have been chased around a bit, grouping into large herds and retreating to the woodland. They will settle in the thickest part of the wood and you are always conscious that their eyes are on you, watching for the slightest hint of movement or noise as you try to approach. More often than not, the deer disappear. (More on stalking fallow deer.)

I personally think fallow have a bit of a stupid demeanour and appear almost bemused as they interact, but they are jumpy and even more so when in larger groups. Then again, the arrival of the thermal spotter has made stalking woodland fallow, particularly the trickier does, much easier.

dead muntjac deer

Muntjac require careful stalking, but technology can give you an advantage

Four : Muntjac

The use of the thermal units applies to all deer but none more so than the muntjac (Muntiacus reevesi). They live in the thickest of cover and move around in the deep understorey of bramble and thorn, scurrying about like woodland guinea pigs, constantly on the move as they feed.

My most challenging stalks have been in broadleaf woodland, particularly in July and August when the cover is highest. With careful stalking you can spot muntjac as they emerge into an opening, but by the time you have set up they are gone. I’ve lost count of the number of times I can only watch foliage moving over the top of the scope as they scurry away.

Using a thermal scanner

Using a thermal scanner can help you spot the deer and anticipate where they will emerge into the open

The most productive way to shoot muntjac used to be from a high seat, allowing you to look down into the cover and intercept them as they emerged into a small glade or opening. Today, stalkers can use a handheld thermal device and scan into cover while moving stealthily through the thickest of woods. This is still challenging but can be equally as effective as it allows you to see the deer and anticipate where they will emerge into the open and be set up and ready for the shot if it presents.  (Read everything you need to know about muntjac.)

majestic red stag and one of the toughest deer to stalk

The majestic red stag is our largest and most prestigious stalking quarry

Three : Red

Our largest and most prestigious stalking quarry is the majestic red hill stag (Cervus elaphus) — though we should not overlook the red hind. The ‘Monarch of the Glen’ draws many visiting hunters from around the globe; this is likely to be as much about the scenery and hunting in vast unspoilt landscapes as anything else. Stalks often require long and physically demanding treks over sometimes extreme terrain, followed perhaps by a belly crawl in an icy stream to reduce the distance to a shootable beast. And then there is the extraction.

I remember my first stalk for a red stag on the open hill as if it were yesterday. The estate stalker spotted my beast early and we followed him for most of the day, but on each occasion that we closed the gap he moved on before presenting a shot. We eventually caught him at the top end of a long, steep glen — then the real work started as we dragged the giant home. (More on red deer here.)

stalking roe deer one of the toughest deer to stalk

Chris Dalton has enjoyed many memorable encounters while stalking roe deer

Two : Roe

Number two on my list of toughest deer to stalk.  I move on to my favoured roe (Capreolus capreolus); the deer on which I served my stalking apprenticeship and one of the prettiest deer on the planet. There is little to beat hunting roebucks, resplendent in summer pelage, in their woodland domain. With long open seasons and widespread distribution, I have enjoyed many memorable encounters.

Admittedly, in open farmland, roe are relatively easy to spot and approach but in their favoured woodland habit it is entirely different — here they are often referred to as the ‘elves of the forest’ due to their elusive and near-mystical nature. On one occasion, while guiding a client, we had four roebucks recklessly charge into our call at the same time, arriving from all four directions of the compass. Suffice to say, they all left, unscathed, as quickly as they had arrived. It was a magical experience, and I never tire of the thrill of stalking roe, but even my favoured species must make way for the final deer on my list. (More on roe deer here.)

Sika stag - the toughest deer to stalk

Sika are deer with attitude and their shrewdness makes them an exceptionally tough quarry to stalk

One : Sika

Sika (Cervus nippon) are deer with attitude and stags will often show little regard to stalkers. They thrive in the thickest of forests, not moving until late at night, frustratingly appearing as shadows in the gloom. Similarly, at first light they will be long gone. Reluctant to cross open areas, they will instead circle inside the treeline, moving silently through dense thickets. It has to be number one on my list of the toughest deer to stalk.

I recall trying to call in a sika stag — which subsequently became known as ‘Birch wood stag’ — on two occasions during the rut. He responded to the call and I knew he was approaching as his eerie whistle got louder until he must have been almost next to me. While I caught the odd shadow in the murky woodland, he was far too shrewd to step into the open. For that experience alone, the sika gets my vote as the most challenging deer to stalk.

In South Africa, the kudu is referred to as the ‘grey ghost’, disappearing silently and with ease into thorn thickets when hunted; I would suggest that the sika is worthy of the same name and could easily become our very own ‘grey ghost’.